Since Georgetown was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2008, Penangites have much to rejoice in. The city, which had been suffering from years of neglect and dilapidation, was suddenly thrown into the spotlight with much fanfare and celebration. The listing brought about a sense of hope, optimism and expectation in reviving Georgetown to its former glory. We check with the organizers of Georgetown Festival for the latest in the Penang scene.
Slowly, one can see the transformation of Penang taking place soon after the World Heritage Site announcement was made. Crumbling pre-war buildings, especially in the inner areas of city were given a new lease of life, leading to the establishment of quaint little outlets beckoning a sense of dignity, peace and rest.
Of late, such has been the trend in urban redevelopment of these pre-war buildings, with popular areas including Muntri St, Victoria St and Beach St among others, which has drawn much interest from the locals and tourists alike.
A City in Celebration
Furthermore, the state holds an annual Georgetown Festival, a month long event that transforms the city into a platform showcasing a variety of arts, culture and heritage performances. We recently managed to catch up with Joe Sidek, the man behind the Georgetown Festival to see what his views were on how the Festival had impacted the city’s efforts in urban redevelopment.
“There is a very strong link between lifestyle and property,” Sidek says, adding that people were slowly going back to their roots, eager to revitalise the old charm of Georgetown.
This is probably why there are currently a lot of interested parties looking into restoring the old pre-war buildings within the inner areas of the city. Lots of these renovated buildings have been converted into tea and coffee houses, restaurants, art galleries and boutique hotels.
“I see that that there’s a lot of money coming into the state as more and more entrepreneurs both local and from abroad expressing strong interest in setting up hospitality businesses here, which is beneficial for the property market here.
Indeed, there is a certain feel in basking on a slow Saturday afternoon sipping a latte on an antique table and chair in a 100 odd-year-old building while browsing through a good book watching life go by.
“I think the reason such refurbished outlets are so successful is because while they are exciting, cool, eclectic and trendy, you would not feel awkward bringing your grandparents to have a drink with you while discussing family history.”
“There is just a sense of dignity and comfort of such places that appeal even to the older generation, partly because they also once grew up in these kinds of buildings and are quite familiar with their surroundings.”
Such outlets also boast in their personalised signature selection of cuisine that also contributes to Penang as a food haven, leaving foodies curious as to what these outlets have to offer.
The Life & Soul of the City
However, would only trendy cafes, restaurants and hotels be enough to revive the city and make it attractive for people to make homes in? Sidek does not think so, as he believes more efforts should be undertaken to improve the liveability of Georgetown.
“There is so much more that can be done in terms of enriching the arts, culture and heritage scene of the city. For a start, we would need more museums and galleries to be set up,” he said.
Incidentally, Penang was once upon a time a hub for arts and culture stretching back to the 1700s. It was during that time when the one of the earliest photography societies was set up. The state, during that period also had one of the pioneering art councils. However, as time went by, the arts scene dwindled in the state with many art practitioners moving overseas or to larger cities which promised a brighter future for them. Nonetheless, Sidek feels that the renaissance era for Georgetown – in terms of the arts – is close at hand.
“The city will benefit greatly by having more avenues for the performing arts – something more established cities in the world are known for – which can draw in more tourists here,” he said.
Already, the state has benefited from the much publicised World Heritage listing, thanks to generous coverage from international media outlets such The New York Times, the Asian Wall Street Journal and the South China Morning Post.
“The numbers of tourists have been on the rise, partly because they want to see what the fuss is all about,” Sidek said.
“However, for world travellers, they are not really keen on checking out the latest clubbing spots – on the other hand, they are more inclined to chill out at a lounge or watering hole late in the evenings to savour performances that are on par with the international scene,” he said.
“Many foreigners I know seem to fall in love with Georgetown. I know of tourists who have bought old properties, renovated them and have made them into homes, and not commercial gains,” he added.
“To me, I think it would be pointless to own a beautiful home, but have nothing to look forward to outside of your four walls.”
“That is why I feel that it is of utmost importance to develop the infrastructure for the arts within the city as that will be the catalyst likely to have a positive impact on the properties here,” he added.